Given the global pandemic and prominent social unrest, so much other news has been falling to the wayside.
Take the tech world’s “cookiepocalypse,” for instance. Earlier this year, Google announced it would, within the next two years, phase out the third-party cookie tracking on its Chrome browser. Google’s privacy actions will create significant changes in how digital advertisers track and target users. The clearest impact: serving up targeted, personalized advertising at scale will be much more difficult.
Cookies have long offered a simple way to track users’ behavior across the web. They are essentially ways that websites tag users to remember important information about a visit, such as pages visited and preferred language. Since they enable easy user data collection, cookies enable a greater level of personalization for brands and advertisers.
Through laws like Europe’s Global Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), governments have been more restrictive on brands’ use of customers’ personal information, and Google has felt the pressure to comply.
Within this new reality, Airlines face a challenge: how to continuously improve their level of personalization—a key to their per-passenger profitability—while respecting passengers’ privacy.
This is a prime moment for airlines to examine how to make use of other strategies and technologies, such as increasing the perks in exchange for opting in, creating cookie-free experiences, and using context as a substitute for tracking data.
How Airlines Can Get More Passengers to Opt In
Cookie tracking involves following users across their web-enabled travels, but often without their knowledge or consent. Given evolving privacy regulations, many websites already ask users to opt in and provide explicit consent for websites they trust to track their behavior online.
The same will be true in the air as it is across the digital landscape. The key for airlines is retaining passengers’ trust that they’re using data to offer benefits, rather than just seeking to maximize profit.
So far, the majority of passengers trust airlines with their data, says Henry H. Harteveldt, President of travel industry analyst Atmosphere Research Group. He says research from his firm shows about 80% of U.S. travelers, as well as 72% of Chinese and 79% of UK travelers, are comfortable sharing data with airlines to save money when they travel.
And that’s not just transaction data. Customers are also comfortable sharing biometric data, especially in a new, contactless world where iris scans could offer discounts and deals on the spot, says Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and the International Flight Services Association (IFSA).
For international flights, Leader says U.S. passengers consent to biometric scans for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol re-entry at above 98%. He adds that culture can dictate passengers’ comfort level with sharing personal data, where a country like Germany’s uptake rate is somewhat lower, at 75%.
Leader also mentions that it’s incumbent upon airlines to retain the trust that passengers currently have in them. “People don’t like advertising that’s too invasive, especially from someone they want to trust in travel,” he says.
How to Deliver Personalized In-flight Experiences Without Cookies
Rather than seeing opt-in rules as a hindrance, airlines could use tracking opt-ins on airline websites, mobile apps, and sites accessed through in-flight entertainment as an opportunity to better interact with a more actively engaged set of customers. For instance, the opt-in touchpoint doesn’t need to be a source of friction, but rather an opportunity to make customers offers, says Brett Snyder, founder, and author of airline industry blog crankyflier.com. “I’m a window seat guy through and through. Give me an offer with a window option and ask if I want to switch,” he says. “Do something that really caters to me and my likes. If you do that, I’m going to be pretty happy and I’ll be likely to stick with you.”
Without cookies, the most comprehensive way to personalize the passenger experience is through airlines’ owned digital properties. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Leader says Delta showcased a vision where their app would manage the entire end-to-end passenger journey. From a passenger’s first search for a flight to their rideshare at their destination, with a self-scan bag tag, facial recognition at the terminal and at the gate in Atlanta, meshing with the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system to manage entertainment preferences, accurate alerts for baggage arrival—even ground transportation for the journey to the hotel.
Delta and other airlines can apply the same smart technology to create other benefits, like helping passengers board with social distancing in mind, Leader adds.
Airlines could use tracking opt-ins on airline websites, mobile apps, and sites accessed through in-flight entertainment as an opportunity to better interact with a more actively engaged set of customers.
Since personalization drives profitability, it’s all about toeing the line between what’s possible and what’s palatable to customers. For instance, Leader says APEX defended the use of in-seat cameras. While he concedes that the technology may seem spooky to people now, Leader says following passenger eye movement is useful when looking to personalize entertainment and content, and touchless interfaces seem increasingly wise given current health concerns.
How to Use Context as a Substitute for Tracking Data
It’s easy to paint a rosy picture of the personalized flight of the future where a flight experience seamlessly caters to a passenger’s every need, from entertainment to pre-departure drink choice. Even without voluminous data, there is a lot they can do through context. As well, aggregate data is also helpful in ensuring the right flights are properly stocked with the right food, entertainment, and other amenities appropriate for a given “audience”.
At the same time, such systems help airlines reduce costs. Why pay to license content that no one is watching?
If they keep the passenger at the center of their drive toward personalization, the rest of the equation becomes simple.